Interview with Giannis Sotiriou, Head of Innovation & Strategy at Optima Foods.
I learned about “ice walking” from Giannis Sotiriou, Head of Innovation & Strategy at Optima Foods. Optima Foods is a leading imports and distribution company of Greek food products in the United States.
The very first thing Giannis said to me in our interview was: ”I work with innovation, but I stopped using the word innovation a long time ago. Words like innovation and disruption scare people and many people look at innovation with skepticism. Instead of getting people excited about a potentially possible and different future, I get them to want to better understand their present. It is much easier to talk to people about the present than the future.”
His approach is not to invite people to “do something different”, but to instead push them to explore the limits of the current business. To do what they are doing, but to do it as best as they possibly can.
“I call it exploring the boundaries of the organisation.”
He wants people to better understand where they are now, and he does that by making sure that they collect as much data as possible about the current business. Then they dig deeper – much deeper – into the current business to unearth new insights and ideas.
By gathering more, better, more relevant data you can see the current business in new lights.
Digging deeper into the current is, for a lot of people, much less frightening than being pushed into somewhere new and unknown. But it can be just as valuable.
“When I get the new and improved data I try to paint a story with their own data, to get them to buy into the new insights that we have gathered.”
He then suggests small changes based on the new insights “little by little” so that people “do not get overwhelmed by a big idea”.
Small corrections based on new insights of the current business does not feel threatening and people go along with the changes – because they do not feel like changes.
To be clear: Giannis is not against innovating – he is in fact pushing innovation, but his approach is different. He said: “There are two ways of doing innovation. One is trying to predict what the future looks like and the other to better understand what the present looks like.
If you are walking on an iced lake, you don’t want to suddenly start running for a few miles hoping to find the shore. Instead, you have to better understand how stable the ice you are currently standing on is and change your direction accordingly.
So, what I’m basically saying is I prefer walking on ice than running on it. And you know what, sometimes while you’re walking you discover things that you would have missed if you were running instead. Like a big hole into the ice where you can fish freely. That’s what exploring new datasets can offer an organization.”
I asked Giannis to exemplify, and he told me about how they for years had been selling big, 10 KG buckets of Feta cheese mainly to restaurants and caterers, but Giannis data showed that in one region of the US they got many requests for smaller buckets. So they did a 5 KG bucket, then a 2 KG bucket, then a 500-gram container, a 300-gram container and finally a 100-gram container and as the containers got smaller they got them into other distributors who sold to grocery stores.
He made his point to me: “If I would have told the organisation that we would go from selling 10 KG buckets of Feta cheese to restaurants to selling small, 100 gram containers in grocery stores people would have thought I was crazy. But by showing the data and doing small changes that is where we ended up, and it is now a very important part of our business.”
By better understanding the current business and the current market they found opportunities that slowly changed their operations.
And then Giannis said something that I found to be very true: “We focus on the present because the future is really hard to predict, and what people do not understand is that there is as much energy in the current as there is in the future.”
Let me repeat that: “There is as much energy in the current as there is in the future.”
The word “current”, as you know, has multiple meanings. It means “belonging to the present time” but it also means “a body of water or air moving in a definite direction” as well as “a flow of electricity.” – and when you realise that you can better appreciate the energy of the current moment. The current is not static. It is moving.
Get your team, and yourself, excited about the current situation and then dig deeper into – and look closer at – what you are doing right now and you can find new opportunities. The key here is to not just “stand where you are” – but to “dig deeper where you are”.
A simple example could be a couple in a house. Instead of dreaming of a bigger house or looking at ads for larger houses they could instead look at the house they live in and by studying the blueprints perhaps discover that there might be a possibility to build an attic under the roof in their current home.
Looking closer at what you got, instead of looking far into the future into something you do not have. Or as Giannis said: “Instead of chasing the future, spend more time looking for the possibilities of the present.”
What could you find if you were to dig deeper into the current state of your business?
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